Fair Does Not Mean Equal: Discipline in adoptive families

Tween girl pouting on a chair in her house
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"It's so not fair!" Sally yelled as she threw a coffee mug across the room. "She gets everything!"

The defiant 10-year-old stormed out of the kitchen, and then slammed her bedroom door hard enough to shake the walls. Sally's mom, Kim, responded angrily and grounded Sally from a Friday night sleepover. This was not the first time Sally had flashed this level of anger. 

"What's changed?" Kim wondered. The obvious answer was Dakota, the 8-year-old Kim and her husband, David, adopted the previous year. Sally had encouraged this adoption, however, even pushed it, and now seemed close to Dakota. 

But Kim and David were at the end of themselves and desperate to get to the bottom of Sally's behavior. During one family talk, an exasperated Sally asked, "Why doesn't Dakota get in trouble for talking back and cursing? Why does she get to sleep with you some nights? It's just not fair. It's like she means more to you than me!"

Dakota had come from a background thick with trauma. Her birth mother drank heavily when Dakota was in the womb, and foster homes filled with equally broken children caused developmental delays and adverse neurological impact. Kim and David shared this information with Sally before Dakota came to live with them. It seemed obvious to them that given Dakota's history, some accommodation was reasonable.

They were correct, but as these parents were soon to learn, there are important steps needed to help birth children understand and cope with the differences necessary in disciplining a foster or adopted child.

A New Child

Relationships are strained when a foster or adopted child enters the home. Existent family systems are naturally disrupted, and a child who's been traumatized manifests the physical, emotional and psychological damage.

Dr. Karyn Purvis, a leading expert on trauma in children, speaks to the stark reality birth kids face after a new child joins the family. In the video "Should I Parent My Adopted Child Differently Than Birth Children?" on her website, empoweredtoconnect.org, Purvis says that only children, like Sally, once over the moon by the prospect of a sibling, now have to share toys, clothes and conversation around the breakfast table. And even in families with multiple birth children, a foster or adopted child may initially—or even for some time into the future—take up 80 percent of a parent's attention, depending on the magnitude of trauma they previously experienced.

So how can moms and dads explain this discrepancy to their birth children?

Same Versus Fair

"Parents need to reassure their biological children of their love, pay special attention to their needs and explain that fair doesn't always mean equal," says Debi Grebenik, executive director of Maple Star Colorado, an agency that supports foster care and adoptive families. Of course the kids themselves are equal; the inequity is in the amount of time and attention given to each child.

Both Grebenik and Purvis emphasize that parenting can be wholly fair while being inequitable. Purvis says it's important to communicate to your birth child that each person has similar needs, but these needs may have to be met for different lengths of time and at different intensities.

To the birth child she says, "We were able to protect you when you were little. We held you for thousands of hours. We said all these yeses. You had our undivided attention. We got to meet your needs, but we didn't get to do that for your sister. We just need to catch up—and it may take a little time. I will do my best to meet all of your needs too."

Talk + Time = Trust

Purvis suggests giving birth children strategies so they don't misbehave when they perceive sibling injustice. She encourages parents to be "honor bound" to a child's voice. She says a parent can say something like, "Whenever you need to talk about these issues, whenever you're frustrated, you come to me, and I will make every effort to stop whatever I'm doing and listen to you." Purvis believes this dialogue and open communication build necessary trust.

While communication is important, so is spending quality time alone with your birth child. Grebenik urges parent and child dates, perhaps Saturday morning breakfast or hot chocolate at Starbucks. She stresses the importance of speaking to a child's spirit and building up his or her sense of specialness during that time.

Compassionate Kids

Children in healthy adoptive families learn to be compassionate adults. As Grebenik says, "They come to realize that not everyone is born into safety, not everyone has a brain that works as it should, and not everyone is blessed with loving parents." They see the damage of evil such as abuse and neglect, firsthand. In a real sense, they see a broken, hurting world up close, yet they get to deal with it within the context of a caring family that relies on the power of Jesus.

Part of this compassion is learning how trauma impacts the brain. Grebenik suggests the website childtrauma.org, which provides images of the brain, especially areas damaged by abuse and neglect. She suggests gently explaining basic differences to the birth child, so they can grasp them from a medical standpoint. Just as a broken leg hurts and leaves a mark, trauma alters the way a brain looks and functions. "Because our adoptive child's brain is broken, we need to do some things differently with them," Grebenik says. "A child learns that it's not all about fairness, but compassion."

For More Information

Find additional information about adoption at icareaboutorphans.org. If you need help, our licensed counselors are available to listen and pray with you, as well as provide guidance and resources. Find out more at FocusOnTheFamily.com/CounselingHelp or call 800-A-FAMILY (232-6459), Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain Time).

If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Thriving Familya marriage and parenting magazine published by Focus on the Family. Get Thriving Family delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.

© 2015 by Amy Tracy. Used by permissions.

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